Whenever non-profit boards hunker down to discuss fund-raising options, one suggestion invariably floats to the surface.

“Hey,” someone always says, “why don’t we have an auction?”

A good idea, on its face. Get some items donated, invite the public, then hope that spirited bidding sends the prices soaring.

The devil, however, is in the details. Auctions can be volunteer-intensive, especially if a lot of items need to be moved into a central area. An auction on a given day or night must be publicized, and is then at the mercy of how many people decide to show up.

In the case of the Ethel Walker School of Simsbury, CT, a traditional auction just wasn’t feasible — the school was trying to target its alums, who were scattered all over the country. That’s when board member Donya Nagib Sabet, acting on a friend’s recommendation, decided to try an auction online.

“We were looking for something new,” Sabet said later, “a fundraising event that could engage Walker’s geographically diverse community. Something that would be accessible to everyone, and would be exciting, different and fun.”

And it worked. School supporters not only bid but donated items on-line — 153 of them. Over 1,000 bids were placed, and the school wound up raising $62,500.

“We had some nail-biting about midway through,” Sabet said, “but we stayed the course, and the last week, it just exploded.”

Meanwhile, in Boca Raton, Fla., the Adolph & Rose Levis Jewish Community Center tried a different wrinkle. The group continued to hold its annual ball and live auction, a perennially successful tradition used to attract scholarship money, but augmented that with an earlier on-line auction. As it turned out, according to group member Janet Oppenheimer, the on-line auction outperformed the live one.

In some ways, this isn’t surprising. While the extroverts among us may thrive in the spirited competition of a “real” auction, other people can find it intimidating. We’ve all seen too many movies where an ill-timed twitch or toss of the head winds up inadvertently purchasing a Ming vase or a Picasso.

On-line, the pressure is off. You bid at your convenience — and if decide to back off your bid, you won’t look like a coward in public.

Then, there’s the convenience aspect. As Janet Oppenheimer put it: “We wanted to reach people who might not be interested in a $500-a-plate dinner.”

Forget the black tie. With an on-line auction, you can bid in your pajamas.

“I was shocked at how little investment it cost us,” said Susan Neumann of the National Trust for Historic Preservation after her group tried an auction on-line. “It depends on how much you want to invest in the Web site. We didn’t invest anything. We built it ourselves using two staff people. We wound up paying less than $2,500. So it was an excellent investment for us.”

Like the Jewish Community Center in Boca Raton, the NTHP used the Internet to augment its normal dinner/auction. According to the Non-Profit Times, “By placing auction items online 3 1/2 weeks prior to the event, it allowed online bidders to place a maximum bid that would then be conveyed by proxies standing in against the silent auction bidders at a live event.”

“The economics of an auction are that fundamentally, the more people you have bidding, the higher the bids,” says Greg McHale, co-founder of cMarket in Cambridge, MA, by all accounts the leader in staging on-line auctions for non-profits and the group hired by both the Jewish Community Center and Ethel Walker School.

Non-profits can also use eBay to sell donated items with a time bound auction or over a longer haul.

The Prostate Cancer Foundation raised $200,000 on e-Bay, baiting their cyberhooks with such “experience” prizes as lunch with singer Avril Lavigne, a photo shoot with skateboard hero Tony Hawk and a tennis match with Donald Trump.

Of course, that organization is based in Santa Monica, CA. It would be a lot more difficult to pull in that star power from, say, Ottumwa, Iowa. That’s where MissionFish comes in. Since 2003, the company has worked together with Giving Works, a charitable arm of e-Bay, to multiply the options open to even small non-profits.

According to the MissionFish Website: “We created MissionFish because our years of non-profit work led us to realize a few things:

1.There are a lot of good people and companies that support non-profits, and they have a lot of good stuff to give away.

2. Most non-profits can’t use the things that those people and companies want to give away as in-kind gifts.

3. Nonprofits don’t generally have the time, the people or the infrastructure for dealing with these in-kind gifts even when they can use them.”

Posted on 17 July 2006

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